Is Tweed New Haven Airport Cleared to Take a More Prominent Place Next to Bradley in Connecticut's Air Transportation Network?

July 15, 2019

Tweed New Haven Airport — serving travelers since 1931 but a backwater in the state’s modern air transportation network — now could take off after a federal court has overturned a state law limiting the length of its runway.

The ruling last week was cheered by supporters who say the four-year legal fight was worth it because a longer runway will attract more commercial carrier service.

Additional flights and destinations — say, Dallas, Washington and Chicago — are key to economic development in the New Haven area and beyond as companies seek easy access to airports in an increasingly global marketplace, they say.

The way isn’t completely clear for a longer runway, however. Influential state legislators representing New Haven and East Haven are pressing the state attorney general to appeal last week’s court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They are worried adequate measures haven’t been taken to shield the surrounding neighborhood from a busier airport.

Others are raising concerns separate from the runway about how expanded service at Tweed — now limited to daily service to Philadelphia and a weekend flight to Charlotte, N.C. — would affect Bradley International Airport, just 50 miles to the north.

Matthew T. Hoey III, interim director of the Tweed airport authority and first selectman of Guilford, said New Haven already has lost ground with some local corporations because of limited options at Tweed.

Hoey is troubled by announcements such as the one this winter by New Haven-based Achillion Pharmaceuticals. Achillion — a biopharmaceutical company focused on drug development for rare diseases — moved its headquarters and clinical operations to suburban Philadelphia.

While Achillion saw a tantalizing talent pool, it also saw easy access to airports as a reason for the move.

“The challenge for them was for those who needed to travel regularly, they just couldn’t get in and out of New Haven — their sales force and their development folks,” Hoey said.

Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy and programs at the Business Council of Fairfield County, said he sees clear advantages for communities east of Westport — both business and leisure travelers — to flying out of Tweed.

Tweed would eliminate long, congested rides on I-95 to Westchester Airport that can take an hour or more, or worse, the trip to LaGuardia or JFK airports, he said.

“But the big question is what impact it would have on Bradley, and I think that’s an important question,” McGee said. “You don’t want to beggar one for the other.”

Closer relationship with Bradley?

Months ago, the Tweed airport authority approached the Connecticut Airport Authority, which controls Bradley and the state’s five general aviation airports, about taking over management — or even acquiring — Tweed.

With any expansion at Tweed, it will be critical to coordinate service and flights with Bradley and, in the future, potential service out of Sikorsky Airport in Bridgeport also could be in the mix, said Kevin Dillon, the CAA’s executive director.

“The market is a fairly good-sized market, but it’s not large enough that airports can start going off and doing their own thing and not realize that they are part of a coordinated system,” Dillon said.

Clearly, Dillon said, there is market overlap between Bradley and Tweed, about 12 percent of passengers, according to one study. But that doesn’t mean both airports can’t offer flights to the same destination in some cases, he said.

“When you have market areas, such as Chicago, there is plenty of activity within this market area, there is the ability to offer that service,” Dillon said.

But that wouldn’t be the case if both Bradley and Tweed were trying to offer service to, say, Milwaukee, which can only sustain one flight a day out of the markets of the two airports, Dillon said.

With coordination — either a formal arrangement between Tweed and the CAA or another system — “there is that option to provide a better level of service to state residents as well as to attract a level of activity that unfortunately, because of geography, we haven’t attracted here at Bradley,” Dillon said. “And that’s principally lower Fairfield County.”

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said she is willing to consider some relationship between Tweed and the CAA. But negotiations, Harp said, would need to involve the city of New Haven, which owns the airport, even though it is located in East Haven.

“We shouldn’t be going to these sessions when we meet with airlines. We should have a statewide plan that we all agree with so we don’t see this as competitive process between Bradley and Tweed,” Harp said.

Of a formal relationship with the CAA, Harp said: “Certainly we would look at it. But, as you know, the devil’s in the details.”

David Lehman, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development, said he envisions a healthy co-existence between Bradley and Tweed.

Lehman and other says Connecticut can tap into the 62 percent of travelers in Tweed’s market that now use LaGuardia or JFK, sometimes a two- or three-hour drive away.

Gov. Ned Lamont has been a strong supporter of a higher profile for Tweed, highlighting the airport in his first address to the state legislature earlier this year.

“I don’t believe Tweed cannibalizes Bradley,” Lehman said. “Bradley is going to be the main airport with the international options, especially for the central portion of the state, the northern portion of the state.

“But for [domestic] flights in the southern portion of the state, Tweed really needs to have those options. So I do see this working hand-in-hand with Bradley as opposed to at the expense of Bradley.”

State law overturned

In 2002, the state and the Federal Aviation Administration approved a master plan for Tweed that included extending the main runway to 7,200 feet.

The 2009 state law was passed as part of a large state budget bill — without a public hearing — as New Haven-area lawmakers argued they were worried a longer runway and more air traffic at Tweed would harm surrounding residents’ quality of life and the environment.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled state laws cannot interfere with the Federal Aviation Act, which regulates commercial airports.

A decade after the state law was enacted, a longer runway, supporters say, would help accommodate aircraft with larger passenger capacities, which more airlines are now favoring.

An extended runway also would permit landings in bad weather without having to lighten the weight carried by an arriving plane. Now, if the runway is wet, landing aircraft must either ask a certain number of passengers to get off the plane prior to takeoff or cancel the flight altogether. A wet runway requires more time for an airplane to safely stop.

Passenger counts are critical to airline decisions about which airports they serve, and Hoey, at the Tweed airport authority, said it is well known in the industry about the challenges posed by the existing Tweed runway.

Even the most ardent supporters of expanded flights at Tweed say they aren’t looking at making it a “gigantic” airport. Right now, one study shows 90 passengers are served at Bradley for every one at Tweed.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven, who represents the district on one side of the airport, said before there is any expansion at Tweed, there must be a comprehensive planning process for protecting the neighborhood.

Looney said $12 million spent on a noise-reduction initiative covers less than half of the homes near the airport. There should be other changes, including a new entrance on a road with more businesses on the East Haven side, rather than, as it is now, through a residential neighborhood. Moving the terminal to the East Haven side also might make sense, he said.

Looney said the bill for the work, which could easily run into the tens of millions or more — could be shared by the state, universities and even surrounding communities beyond New Haven and East Haven that benefit from more service at Tweed.

“We have to have a planning process that would allow expanded use of the airport to go forward and still not be a hardship on the affected communities nearby,” he said.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this story.

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected].


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